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The Associated Press March 1, 2003

Nimitz deployment brings unprecedented firepower to Middle East

By SETH HETTENA, Associated Press Writer

The assignment of the USS Nimitz and its battle group to the Persian Gulf means the U.S. military soon will have an unprecedented floating air force within striking distance of Iraq.

The Nimitz will leave San Diego with its eight-ship battle group and 8,000 sailors and airmen Monday. It is expected to take at least a month to reach the Gulf, where it will join five other carrier battle groups operating in the area, although the Nimitz may replace one of them, the USS Abraham Lincoln.

"The fact that five carriers have been deployed to the region at the same time tells you what kind of campaign it's going to be," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "It's going to be an overwhelming air assault that reduces every facet of Iraqi military capability in a few days. This war is going to be over pretty quickly."

The Lincoln, the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Constellation are in the Persian Gulf. The USS Harry S. Truman and USS Theodore Roosevelt are in the eastern Mediterranean, within striking range of Iraq.

Typically, each carrier travels with a battle group of at least two cruisers, a destroyer and a submarine. Aboard each carrier is an air wing with about 70 aircraft, roughly 50 of which are strike planes, such as F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats. The Nimitz is taking two squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornets, which have longer range and more firepower than older Hornets.

Today's carrier air wings are far more lethal than they were during the 1991 Gulf War.

Each of the six carrier air wings can now hit 700 targets per day in any weather, day and night, thanks to precision-guided munitions, Thompson said. During Desert Storm, an air wing could handle 200 targets a day - fewer at night or in bad weather.

Air wing commanders today speak of the number of targets a single plane can hit instead of the number of planes required to hit a single target.

"The U.S. has deployed this many carriers before, but it's never deployed this much striking power," Thompson said.

The deployment of the Nimitz means half of the Navy's 12 aircraft carriers are now massing in the Middle East.

"They are working the carriers to death," said Patrick Garrett, a defense analyst with Globalsecurity.org, a research organization. The collection of forces increases the pressure to order a strike. "They've got all this equipment sitting out there, which is not just stressful on the equipment but it's stressful on families," Garrett said.

The Lincoln left Everett, Wash., on July 20 and was on its way home New Year's Day when it was ordered back to the Gulf. Its deployment, now stretching into its eighth month, is one of the longest of any carrier since the 1980s, Garrett said.

To prepare the Nimitz, fleet commanders crunched two major training and evaluation exercises into a three-week period of intense war games.

Cmdr. Jacqueline Yost, a spokeswoman for the Navy's Third Fleet in San Diego, said the Navy is well aware of the strain on its carriers and crews.

"It's a unique situation," Yost said. "Basically it shows the flexibility of the naval forces. We don't know how long we could sustain something like this but for the unique situation we're in, we're able to do that."

"The bottom line is we don't expect a requirement indefinitely," she said.


Copyright 2003, The Associated Press